Everywhere it seems that culture is in ascendance. More and more social groups are claiming to have distinctive cultures and are demanding recognition of their cultural distinctiveness. Identity politics has merged with cultural politics, so that to have an identity one must now also have a culture. Those who fail to establish their culture risk having their "truth" missed by the myriad of authorities--courts, admissions committees, draft boards-whose judgments help determine life fates. As a result, it sometimes seems as if almost every ethnic, religious, or social group seeks to have its "culture" recognized, and for precisely this reason "the cultural" itself has become a subject of political discourse to a much greater extent than in the past. Yet despite the growing sense that culture must be recognized, there is little consensus on what the boundaries of the cultural are, let alone how to "read" it in any particular instance.

Moreover, the backlash against the proliferation of cultures and identities, and the "politics of recognition," has been vehement. Politicians declare "culture wars" in an effort to reassert both the meaning and centrality of certain allegedly transcendent human values. Debates about the meaning and significance of culture become arguments about "civilization" itself, in which acknowledgment of cultural pluralism and its accompanying decanonization of the "sacred" Western texts are treated as undermining national unity, national purpose, and the meaning of being "American." Political contests are increasingly fought over values and symbols, with different parties advancing competing cultural programs.

With the decline of ideology as an organizing force in international relations, culture seems to provide another vantage point from which to understand new polarities.' In addition, the cache of the cultural is increasingly resonant in public policy, where traditional goals like reducing crime and poverty are giving way to cultural goals like reducing the fear of crime, and eliminating the culture of dependency. The cultural is the implicit and explicit space of intervention for popular new strategies like "community policing" and "workfare," which promise to address objective problems by altering the attitudes and experiences of the subjects of policing and welfare. Government and other formal organizations believe that it is essential to have cultural strategies in order to govern their employees and customers more effectively and manage their popular images.